How to Write a Thrilling Action Scene, by Jessi Rita Hoffman
May 8, 2016
Whether you write YA, romance, fantasy, or actual thrillers, there are times in any novel where an action scene is called for. These scenes can be among the hardest to write. What runs like an exciting movie in your imagination can end up clunking along on the page, causing even your own eyes to glaze over. And we all know dull action scenes are the kiss of death for any story.
So what goes wrong in action-scene writing? What can you do to avoid the pitfalls, and how do you tone up a limping action scene ?
In this article, I’ll share the common errors I’ve observed writers make in my work as a book editor and writing coach. Surprisingly, it’s usually not what is missing in an action scene that’s the problem—it’s what is there that needs to be removed.
Why? Because an action scene needs to pop. It cannot tolerate clutter of any kind. Other sorts of scenes are more forgiving, but action scenes must speed across the page with the pace of the action they describe. For that, there can’t be interference. Even a few minor flaws are enough to weigh down the writing and spoil the tension. Typically, the problem with action scenes is not lack of imagination. It’s lack of translation—translation of the writer’s vision to the page.
Here’s the awkward first draft of an action scene written by one of my clients, an aspiring novelist:
With a deafening roar, the tan MRAP armored personnel carrier, the lead vehicle in Alicia’s convoy, launches at least thirty feet into the air, disappearing for a moment in a cloud of smoke and dust. The forty-ton truck and the men inside make almost a full revolution before the truck slams back down on its side onto the gravelly road. The pressure wave rocks her vehicle as the sound of the exploding IED hits her ears.
A whoosh, a blast, followed by heat and flame—rocket-propelled grenades hit the fuel tanker in front of her. Jagged shards of aluminum fly everywhere. The fuel and gasoline are burning, flowing in the ditch to the left of her armored truck in her direction.
She feels the heat radiating onto her pale face through the glass, nearly singing her shoulder-length, light-brown hair. Her low-grade headache from the morning has returned. It’s now a searing pain.
A scream from behind. “We’re hit, Alicia, we’re hit! Oh my God!”
They have to get out of the kill zone.
“Get us out of here, George! Now!”
“Trying won’t cut it. Just do it!”
“I can’t! We’re too close!” His voice is panicked. “I can’t move!”
Here’s how the scene read after it was critiqued and revised:
With a roar, the jeep at the head of the convoy launches into the air in a burst of smoke and dust. It makes a full revolution, slams down on its side. The pressure wave rocks Alicia’s truck as the sound of the exploding bomb hits her ears.
A whoosh, a blast—rocket-propelled grenades hit the tanker in front of her. Shards of flying aluminum. Gasoline burning … flowing into the ditch, rolling in her direction. She feels the heat radiate through the glass.
A scream from behind. “We’re hit! We’re hit!”
They have to get out of the kill zone.
“Get us out of here, George!”
“We’re too close! I can’t move!”
What did the writer do that makes the revised scene so much more gripping? To determine that, let’s identify the problems in the original version of the scene:
Cliché expressions, cliché situations. With a deafening roar is a cliché expression that everyone’s read a million times before. Better to come up with a different way of describing the sound, or else just say “with a roar.” Keep in mind that cliché events in an action scene are even more boring than cliché expressions. If the incidents that make up your action are things we’ve often read in stories or seen in movies, it’s going to come off as copy-cat instead of the exciting event you mean for it to be. Car chases, for example, are routinely cliché, unless there’s something about your car chase that makes it fresh and different.
Distracting details. Beginning writers often mistakenly believe that the more sensory description they can stuff into a scene, the better. But description can either increase or decrease tension in an action scene. Only give details that the person whose point of view the scene is written from would notice or care about, or that we, as readers, need to know to understand what’s happening. Tan (describing the exploding vehicle), to her left (describing the ditch), and gravelly (describing the road) are tension-weakening details. They take the reader’s attention away from what matters. The color of the vehicle, which side the ditch is on, and the condition of the road have no bearing on the action, and the protagonist doesn’t care about these things. Neither do the readers.
Too much attention on pain. Beginning authors often write about the pain of the main character in an action scene. This weakens the tension because readers don’t really care if the hero’s back is aching or even if the wound in his leg is bleeding. They want to know if he’s going to get away from the zombie who’s chasing him. Put attention on the hero’s sore back, and the scene turns maudlin and unbelievable. In real life, no person being chased by a predator would be thinking about his pain. With the adrenaline coursing through him, he wouldn’t even feel pain. Furthermore, bringing up the protagonist’s pain in an action scene has the effect of making the hero sound whiney and weak. In this writing, the line about Alicia’s headache has to go.
Confusing jargon. While a smattering of tech talk can give the feel of real to dialog, overdoing it will make you lose your reader. Imagine if Grey’s Anatomy had conferring doctors using all the medical jargon real-life MDs use in their professional conversations: we’d never grasp the plot line. When you do use jargon, limit it, and make it part of the dialog. Avoid acronyms the reader isn’t likely to understand. In this writing sample, the narrator uses the acronyms MRAP and IED, and we start to feel lost in the scene. Since this isn’t dialog, there’s no excuse to use words that aren’t perfectly clear to the reader.
Hedge words. Sometimes, in an effort to sound accurate, new writers pad scenes with what I call “hedge words”—hesitation words that qualify and limit a statement—thereby diluting its power. At least and almost function in the writing sample as hedge words. They weaken the power of the image the author intends to create. Makes a full rotation is stronger writing than almost makes a full rotation. Write boldly, and don’t hedge or hesitate in your descriptions.
Analytical words. Another mistake new authors can make in the name of accuracy is to use analytical words, such as unnecessary numbers. In this example, thirty feet and forty-ton are examples of analytical words that add nothing of value to the scene and pollute it with what sounds too much like a math lesson. Saying the vehicle launches into the air and makes a full rotation before coming back to earth is enough to create the picture of a heavy truck being shoved upwards with humongous force. It isn’t necessary to pad that description by adding the number of feet the truck rose or the number of tons the truck weighed. We get the picture without that, and the numbers only dilute the visceral, immediate quality of the image.
Stating the obvious. Phrases that state the obvious have no place in any scene, but particularly not in an action scene where they slow down the excitement and slacken the momentum. If the truck is somersaulting in the air, obviously the men inside the truck are also somersaulting—no need to say the truck and the men inside—just say the truck. If the truck disappears in the air in a cloud of smoke and dust before falling back to Earth, no need to say it disappears for a moment. Of course it’s for a moment—no reader is going to wonder if the truck disappeared for an hour or two. Such mistakes may seem small, harmless things—a couple of extraneous phrases—but when you combine them with all the other tiny errors we are identifying, they’re enough to ruin a scene. They make the difference between amateur-sounding writing and professional-level prose.
Redundancy. Be careful not to tell us what you already told us. Further on in this story, the writer describes bullets pinging off the side of the jeep. A paragraph later he talks about the pinging bullets again. The first time he said it, that created tension. The second time, it creates tedium. Only say a thing once. We get it the first time. (This goes for words as well as for actions. Shards of aluminum rather than jagged shards of aluminum, because we already know that shards are jagged. Slams down on its side rather than slams back down on its side because we know without being told that the truck is returning to the ground.)
Clutter words. Extraneous words (I call them “clutter words”) spoil a scene’s tension and slow the pace of the action. The words you use need to move at the same clipped pace as the action you’re describing. Don’t use four or five words when you could use one or two. Don’t write “We’re too close!” His voice is panicked. “I can’t move!” when you could write “We’re too close! I can’t move!” he screamed. In fact, do you even need he screamed? We can tell by the context that he’s probably screaming those words. Match the speed of the words you write to the speed of the scene’s action. Keep the wording clipped and sharp, like the moves your characters are making. If you can choose between a three-syllable- and a one-syllable word, choose the one-syllable, because it sounds faster.
Lengthy dialog. When tension is high, talk is minimal. People (and your characters) focus on the emergency at hand, not on having a conversation. They speak in short words, clipped sentences, often devoid of grammar. Write the dialog as real people would speak it, not as you’d write a term paper for English class. In the revised version of this scene, talk is sparse. The terseness of the conversation increases its urgency and drama.
Point-of-view violations. A scene should only be written from one character’s perspective. Don’t switch from what your character is seeing, feeling, or thinking to the viewpoint, emotions, or thoughts of another person. This is a rule for scenes in general, but in action scenes, it’s particularly important. Switching back and forth between multiple points of view can make the action confusing for the reader. Pretty soon we can’t tell what’s happening to whom. Point-of-view violations can also make the writing sound silly. Here we’re told that Alicia feels the heat radiating on her pale face—but she’s not looking at her own face, so how would she know it appears pale? The heat almost singes her shoulder-length, light-brown hair, but she isn’t thinking about her hair at a time like this and certainly isn’t noticing its color and length. The writer has switched away from Alicia’s point of view and is showing us what might be observed by another character, looking at her. That’s a point-of-view violation. It’s also an example of Point #2: distracting the reader with details that don’t support the focus of the scene. When we read this line it makes us smirk, because it’s so inappropriate.
Sideways-moving action. The action must rise or escalate in intensity, not move horizontally, or the scene loses its tension. If your character is trying to shoot down an approaching attacker, you probably shouldn’t be writing about the casings harmlessly dropping out of the back of her gun or the smoke you already told us about continuing to billow in the distance. The situation must get more difficult for the hero as the scene progresses or you risk boring your reader. In this writing sample, there isn’t much sideways-moving action, but in the work of many budding authors, it’s an error I often encounter, hence the mention.
The good news is that if you write an action scene and afterwards prune out all the flaws we’ve talked about, what remains will either stand out as exciting, or you’ll see at a glance where more tension and challenge are needed. If the latter is the case, you must merely let your imagination pile on more problems and complications for the protagonist, in an escalating order of intensity, and the scene will satisfy.
Once the sluggish flaws and distractions are removed from action-scene writing, all that remains is the story itself. The thrilling, pure, unencumbered story. And that’s what readers come to you for.
What difficulties have you stumbled over in writing an action scene? What did you do that made the scene read better?
Jessi Rita Hoffman is a developmental editor and story coach who helps authors clarify and elevate their material. She is a former publishing house editor in chief and an optioned screenwriter. Her clients have produced manuscripts that have garnered agents, book deals, literary awards, and bestseller status.